NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Two former Black Panthers (2 members of the Angola 3) convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972 should be freed after a federal magistrate found a previous attorney made mistakes during a trial, their current lawyers said Wednesday.
Magistrate Judge Christine Nolan wrote that Albert Woodfox’s conviction should be overturned because his former attorney should have objected to testimony from witnesses who had died after his original trial and to letting a prosecutor testify about the chief prosecution witness’s credibility. The attorney’s omission denied Wilcox a fair second trial in 1998, Nolan wrote in a recommendation Tuesday to U.S. District Judge James Brady, who will rule later.
Woodfox, 61, and Herman Wallace, 66, spent 36 years in solitary confinement after being convicted in the stabbing death of guard Brent Miller on April 17, 1972. They said they were targeted because they helped establish a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Wallace has been appealing his conviction based on arguments similar to Woodfox’s.
Attorneys plan to meet soon with prosecutors to discuss both cases, in hopes of settling them without any further review, said Attorney Nicholas Trenticosta, who represents Woodfox and Wallace.
But First Assistant State Attorney General John Sinquefield said he plans to ask U.S. District Judge John Brady to reject Noland’s recommendations. Sinquefield prosecuted Woodfox in 1973 as an assistant district attorney and was called as a witness during his retrial in 1998.
Along with another ex-Black Panther convicted of killing an inmate at the prison, the trio became known as the “Angola Three” because they were held in isolation for about three decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., about 40 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.
The witnesses who died before Woodfox’s second trial included the prosecution’s main witness – an inmate who made a deal in exchange for his testimony – and an expert who talked about blood spatters on clothing that state officials said had been lost, Nolan wrote.
Asked Wednesday about his testimony regarding the witness, Sinquefield said, “I was subpoenaed, and I testified under a subpoena over there and told the truth the best I could remember it.”
The attorney also should have asked for money to hire experts to testify about blood, DNA and fingerprints and other evidence in Woodcox’s defense, the magistrate wrote.
Noland also noted strong evidence of misconduct by prosecutors but said she declined to go into detail because the ineffective counsel alone was grounds to overturn the conviction.
Trenticosta asked the Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday to consider Wallace’s case. Although a state court commissioner had recommended overturning his conviction, a district judge refused and a state appeals court rejected Wallace’s arguments last month.
Wallace and Wilcox were kept in solitary confinement from 1972 until March, when they were moved to a maximum-security dormitory. Woodfox was serving 50 years for armed robbery before the 1972 charge.
The third member of the “Angola Three” spent 29 years in isolation before his conviction was overturned in 2001. Robert King, known as Robert King Wilkerson in the 1970s, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and was freed.
King said he now lives in Austin, Texas, and supports himself by giving talks about his case and that of Woodfox and Wallace. “I keep the focus on Herman and Albert,” he said.
When they went to Angola, the prison was known as America’s bloodiest. Murders were common and, according to testimony at Woodfox’s 1998 trial, there were widespread problems with rape, Noland wrote.
Asked about the long years in isolation, King said, “It’s like being in hell.”